Riverboats and French Cuisine
There’s no doubt about it. The riverboats of a bygone era that slowly – very slowly – made their way down Europe’s iconic waterways have not only picked up speed but a wave of high-class new vessels have entered service – and, according to John Newton, upended the traditional notion that a river cruise is one big snooze.
As perfect days go, they don’t come any better than cruising along picturesque, sun-drenched rivers in the south-west of France, tasting a drop or two from some of the world’s renowned wineries and topped off with sumptuous French cuisine.
It all starts in stunning Bordeaux – voted European ‘Best Destination’ in 2015 - aboard the stylish MS Cyrano de Bergerac, one of two boats operated by CroisiEurope that ply the waters of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers and the Gironde estuary.
A three-deck river cruiser, Cyrano de Bergerac was displaying all the ship’s French charm and grace at its convenient promenade mooring along the Garonne – a short tram ride to the city centre and the Pont de Pierre, a stone bridge built in 1822 with 17 arches and named after Napoleon Bonaparte (his name has 17 letters). Just over two years old, with a capacity of 174 passengers in 87 spick and span air-conditioned double/ twin en-suite cabins with satellite TV, the ship’s bright decor oozes quality and class. More than 100 original paintings by Spanish artist Alberta Rocca and French design touches throughout the three decks give the ship its feel-good character.
The 110-metre long Cyrano de Bergerac – named after the French dramatist - is dedicated to cruising the Garonne and Dordogne rivers to the region’s mighty red and white wine-producing areas, such as the Medoc and Saint Emilion, with vineyards everywhere along the Gironde estuary.
At a leisurely pace, the ship’s speed is the key to allowing passengers enough time to explore this idyllic corner of France.
On the way to Pauillac after a welcome cocktail reception and first night dinner on board, the early risers spotted a sizeable ship emblazoned on the side with: ‘Airbus A380 on board’ – not the superjumbo, of course, but the gigantic wings of the world’s largest commercial aircraft. They’re on their way to Toulouse – the final assembly line site at Airbus.
The small port of Pauillac, once a thriving town built by wine merchants and ships’ captains, is now a shadow of its former self. But it’s at the heart of famous wine country, surrounded by the distinguished Haut Medoc, Margaux and St- Julien appellations. The Pauillac wine appellation encompasses some 20 Cru classes, including Mouton Rothschild, Latour and Lafite Rothschild (A 2009 bottle costs 1380 euros at the town’s tourist office).
Much of day three is spent sailing the Gironde estuary – the biggest in Western Europe - spanning 75 kilometres with a maximum width of 11 kilometres. The estuary boasts a great variety of fish, including sturgeon and lamprey – a local delicacy despite sometimes called the estuary’s vampire, because it attaches itself to its victims (herring, salmon and mackerel) to suck their blood. Another strange estuary fish – meagre – is reputed for moaning.
Farmed fish has replaced the wild sturgeon whose fishing is now forbidden. However, other species are caught from fishermen’s square net huts (carrelets), perched on stilts, which are widespread on both banks of the estuary - and can be hired.
Ships from all over the world have been sailing the estuary’s waters for more than 3000 years, including Viking long boats, Dutch store vessels, frigates and corvettes, and also barges and cargo boats, bulk carriers and oil tankers. Over the years, navigation on the estuary has followed economic and commercial evolutions.
Today, towns with a rich history, like Blaye, are popular destinations for cruise boats. The well-preserved Citadel of Blaye, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built in 1689 to protect the estuary from the threat of English and Dutch fleets. As a strategic stronghold, mastery of Blaye was often contested over the centuries.
From Blaye, Cyrano de Bergerac heads back towards Bordeaux stopping at Libourne for an optional excursion to the medieval village of Saint Emilion, surrounded by more than 800 wine growers whose cultural landscape earned their vineyards the distinction of being the first be listed by UNESCO in 1999 as part of the World Heritage.
Discovering the underground monuments of Saint Emilion – regarded by the locals as a jewel among the vines - is a fascinating exercise. Emilion was the name of a miracle-working Benedictine monk from Brittany who lived in a cave as a hermit between the years of 750 and 767, and founded the village with some disciples. A guided tour from the ship is the best way to see the historical sights, including the labyrinth of catacombs, which include Emilion’s cave. And if you are not exhausted from pounding the cobbled streets and steep hills of the village, don’t miss the panoramic view from the bell tower of the monolithic church. Also not to be missed are the collegiate church and its cloister, The King’s tower, Brunet Gate and the ramparts, The Cardinal Palace and The Great Wall –and there’s more.
The ship heads back to its mooring in Bordeaux, where an optional guided coach tour of France’s sixth most populated city to take in the diversity of its rich heritage. (see separate Bordeaux story).
Spotting chateaux along the river banks isn’t quite the same as taking first-hand look at the lavish features of two in the Cadillac region on another optional guided coach tour.
The first is the historic chateau of Roquetaillade, a magnificent medieval building and a listed historic monument built during the 12th and 14th centuries. Back in town, the Dukes of Epernon built a huge chateau, which houses spectacular tapestries and fireplaces. Don’t miss the church dating from the 15th century.
CroisiEurope has kept the best optional guided excursion until last. It’s a full day visiting the highest sand dune in Europe, an oyster farm and museum and taking a boat trip on the Bay of Arcachon. First stop is the Oyster Farming Museum in the port of Larros, some 55 kilometres from Bordeaux, where you’ll learn about the delicate and tedious job of oyster farmers, who have to undergo three-year course to achieve diploma status. After an oyster tasting session, a seafood feast is served for lunch. Then it’s off to the bustling seaside town of Arcachon to hop on a boat to see Bird Island, (it owes its name to egrets, ash curlew, moorhens and even teals), the Tchanquee fishermen’s cabins (which originally sheltered the watchmen in charge of the surveillance of the oyster beds), and, of course, the oyster beds, which were originally installed during the reign of Napoleon the third.
There are in fact two industries in oyster farming: Arcachon Bay is the biggest producer of naissin – six-month-old oysters which are shipped all over the French coast to be produced in other regions, while the bay itself produces 15,000 mature oysters.
The tour to the seaside ends at the Dune du Pilot (little mountain), at 109 metres the highest sand dune in Europe, most fit people climb to see the spectacular view. It looks like a pyramid, stretches along almost two kilometres and is 500 wide with a volume of 20 million cubic metres of sand. Wind gusts cause the dune to move inland from one to seven metres a year towards a forest behind it.
Back in Bordeaux, it’s party night after an unforgettable 310-kilometre cruise on Cyrano de Bergerac – the captain’s farewell dinner, a four-course feast by the French onboard chefs.
This was it:
Bloc of duck Foie Gras, caramel spice, brioche buns
Rack of veal with shallots and tarragon
Roasted small round soft goat cheese on toast, mesclun salad with honey vinegar
Baked Alaska flamed in Grand Marnier
(All washed down, of course, with French red and white wine)
There’s never a dull moment on board Cyrano de Bergerac, with cruise director Michel Beguin - and assistant, Gola – always on hand to assist,, as well as keeping the nightly lounge shows flowing, the 320 meals a day to everyone’s satisfaction (breakfast is a buffet). The before and after dinner entertainment is provided by talented husband and wife duo – You and Me – a performance by classy French singer, Alain Michel, and his orchestra, plus a dance routine by members of the 30 crew. During the day, those who don’t go on tours, can listen to lectures (like one on the history and landscape of the Gironde estuary), relax on the sundeck, play cards and board games or prop up the two lounge bars. Drinks before, during and after lunch and dinner are free except premium wines and spirits.
You can get further information on CroisiEurope and river cruises by calling CRUISE ABROAD on 02 9900 7201. www.cruiseabroad.com.au/ or email email@example.com
A demonstration on the art of making caneles turned out to be one of the most popular events on the eight day/seven night cruise.
A canele is a small French pastry with a soft and tender custard centre and a dark, thick caramelised crust. The dessert, which is in the shape of a small, striated cylinder about five centimetres (two inches) in height, is a specialty of the Bordeaux region, but can often be found in Parisian patisseries as well. Made from egg, sugar, milk and flour-flavoured with rum and vanilla, the custard batter is baked in a mould, giving the canele a caramelised crust and custard-like inside.
You can keep the caneles for one year in a freezer and then put them in the oven at 200C for four minutes before eating them, or they’ll keep for 10days outside of a fridge. But best of all eat them the day they’re made!
The writer was a guest of Air France on its daily flights from Singapore to Paris on one of its new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft and back from the French capital to Hong Kong on a superjumbo A380, while Melbourne-based Rail Plus provided first class rail travel in France on the sleek TGV that travels at speeds of almost 300 kilometres an hour between Paris and Bordeaux. Choose from Multi-Country Passes, Eurail Single Country Passes, Eurail Select Pass, Eurail Global Flexi Pass or Global Continuous Pass. For prices and further details go to www.railplus.com.au